Although several of my classmates’ posts have discussed Riverside Church, none have yet focused on the institution in the late 1960s, when the church hosted two of the most influential and explosive speeches of the era. Riverside was both the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s wildly unpopular 1967 speech opposing the Vietnam War and home to former SNCC leader James Forman’s 1969 demand for reparations.
Riverside has long seen itself as fighting for social justice, so it is no surprise that King would have been asked to speak there. On April 4, 1967, he delivered a speech opposing the Vietnam War, which he said was “an enemy of the poor.” He urged men of draft age to seek conscientious objector status, including men who had exemptions as ministers. “All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born,” he declared. Not only was the violence of the war wrong, but failing to support poor and oppressed people in their struggle for justice as also wrong, he felt. King was widely vilified for taking this position. Bayard Rustin wrote an April 22, 1967 op-ed in the Amsterdam News criticizing “the white press” for attacking King after coming out against the war. Rustin pointed out that many people were not only opposing King’s position on the war, but they were also objecting to his right to comment on the war at all. He wrote, “Many editorials seemed to be asking, ‘What is Dr. King doing discussing Vietnam?’ or ‘Who gave him the right to make proposals about our (meaning white America’s) foreign policy?”
Two years later, James Forman interrupted a service at Riverside to declare that white churches and synagogues should pay black people reparations. This was part of the “Black Manifesto” created by the National Black Economic Development Conference, in which Forman participated. According to a May 5, 1969 New York Times article, Forman claimed that white religious institutions were complicit in the system that exploited black people. He thought they should pay a total of $500 million through the National Black Economic Development Conference. He chose Riverside as the site of this speech because Riverside was located in Harlem and because the church had received considerable funding from John D. Rockefeller, who Forman viewed as also contributing to significant exploitation. Hundreds of congregants walked out on Forman as he made this speech, including many of the black members. Some of the opposition came from the fact that Forman had stormed on stage during the middle of the service to make these demands, even though he had previously been denied permission to address the congregation. On May 7, the Times reported that Mayor John Lindsay had offered to send a police officer to any city church or synagogue that thought an unwelcome demonstration might take place there. Needless to say, white religious institutions did not pay $500 million in reparations.